On the SENS Challenge Result

Those arriving late to the party may want to visit the SENS website and look at a summary of the background of the SENS Challenge before reading on. This has become a slightly involved story, or at least one that requires more than thirty seconds of reading time.

The panel of judges have given their opinions on the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) and the solicited submissions. Go and take a look. I think the core of the thing is here:

"We need to remember that all hypotheses go through a stage where one or a small number of investigators believe something and others raise doubts. The conventional wisdom is usually correct. But while most radical ideas are in fact wrong, it is a hallmark of the scientific process that it is fair about considering new propositions; every now and then, radical ideas turn out to be true. Indeed, these exceptions are often the most momentous discoveries in science.

"SENS has many unsupported claims and is certainly not scientifically proven. I personally would be surprised if de Grey is correct in the majority of his claims. However, I don't think Estep et al. have proved that SENS is false; that would require more research. In some cases, SENS makes claims that run parallel to existing research (while being more sensational). Future investigation into those areas will almost certainly illuminate the controversy. Until that time, people like Estep et al. are free to doubt SENS. I share many of those doubts, but it would be overstating the case to assert that Estep et al. have proved their point."

A majority of the judges also argued that if SENS was not exactly science, de Grey (a computer scientist by training) had described his proposals as a kind of engineering project -- and they upbraided Estep et al. for not considering them on those terms. Rodney Brooks wrote, "I have no confidence that they understand engineering, and some of their criticisms are poor criticisms of a legitimate engineering process."

Craig Venter most succinctly expressed the prevailing opinion. He wrote, "Estep et al. in my view have not demonstrated that SENS is unworthy of discussion, but the proponents of SENS have not made a compelling case for it."

You might also want to take a look at my earlier comments on the submissions. I am, it has to be said, surprised that editor Jason Pontin has gone ahead and awarded his half of the $20,000 prize to Estep et al (who will be donating it to the American Federation for Aging Research) despite the judges' opinion. To me, this is a helpful reminder that Pontin, for all he's shown himself to be a stand up fellow, is no supporter of SENS. I get the impression that, after past events, he would like to draw a nice line under this episode, declare victory irrespective of the contents, and move on.

The original terms of the challenge were to demonstrate SENS "so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate." I think that the judges have demonstrated clearly and sensibly, as one would expect, that this isn't going to happen. SENS is a combination of ethical goals, present day biomedical research, and yet-to-be-funded research and development plans grounded in the science we know today. In that, it is no different from any well-researched scientific and engineering research and development proposal. Rodney Brooks hits it right on the head with his comment.

What we learn from this, as advocates for greater meaningful anti-aging research and development in the near term? What I take away from this is that "science," "engineering," and "plan" mean very different things to different people - even to different scientists, engineers and planners. Some people think that SENS is not science. I say those folk have a strange idea as to what science actually is, given that a number of scientists are presently working on SENS projects. That side of SENS looks very much like science to me: the scientific method, laboratories, biotechnology, fathoming the great unknown, peer review and publication; all very traditional.

How about the other side of SENS, the proposals and suggested courses not yet funded? One could look upon these engineering approaches as the delivery of solutions in the lack of full knowledge of the problem space. Science is there to increase understanding of that space, thus making engineering easier - but you don't need complete knowledge to obtain useful results. People were successfully building bridges long before modern mathematics and materials science, but those tools enabled bigger, better, more durable bridges. There is no bright line between science and engineering in planning, organization and divison of labor: think of the scientific research funded and accomplished in the cause of bringing bridge-building techniques up to a level required for proposed projects of the Brunel era.

The one crucial thing to take away from what biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey proposes in SENS - and many other scientists agree with - is this: we presently know enough to make serious inroads in medical engineering aimed at reversing aging. We can build the first of those bridges - but we are not yet doing so, and each year of delay will cost tens of millions of lives.

UPDATE: The TR staff just added an additional, new response - more in the way of another personal attack - from Estep and company. Aubrey de Grey responds to it in the comments on that page. Come on guys; if you're going to set up a forum for debate, at least stick to the form.

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It is very heartening to see Aubrey win.

Perhaps Pontin owes him an apology?

Posted by: Kip Werking at July 11th, 2006 4:25 PM

Isn't it a bit disingenious for you to claim that Aubrey "won" the SENS challenge? I mean he's been asking for years to have experts critique SENS. Sure the "judges" didn't say Estep won the challenge, but they also didn't endorse SENS. More importantly, the real experts were the ones who said SENS is pseudoscience. Aubrey asked for the experts to seriously evaluate SENS, and their answer was unequivocally negative.

Posted by: sageplayer at July 24th, 2006 9:44 AM

Unequivocally negative would have been to declare the award for Estep. See de Grey's comments in the latest newsletter:


"MIT Technology Review's 'SENS Challenge' is an invitation to mainstream gerontologists, with a $20,000 incentive, to compose a denunciation of SENS powerful enough to convince an independent expert panel that discussing SENS in detail - let alone funding it - is unwarranted.

"The Technology Review received three submissions that were all rejected by the panel. Given the eminence of the panel in both biology and technology - and of the submitters in biogerontology - a popular conclusion is that it was singularly unwise of some of my colleagues in gerontology to be quite so outspoken in their opinions of SENS given how poorly they had in fact studied it. A second conclusion is that there was merit on both sides, since the panel were certainly not convinced that SENS would succeed.

"I concur with the first conclusion, but sharply disagree with the second. My view is the exact opposite: that the detail of SENS is what makes it feasible. Hence a panel who came in with essentially no knowledge of SENS and studied it only quite briefly would be almost certain to doubt its feasibility. That they accept its admissibility as a credible topic of discussion *despite* harbouring such doubts makes their refutation of the position of my more intemperate critics even stronger.

"However, it is not my purpose to be in any way triumphalist. I feel that no time should be spent flagellating my colleagues with the SENS Challenge's demonstration that their judgement in signing up to a denunciation of SENS was unduly hasty and short-sighted. Everyone makes mistakes; and the best course, here as always, is to learn from them but not to dwell on them. There are, to be sure, a rump of genuine SENS opponents (as opposed to skeptics) who have nailed their colours so firmly to that mast that they may have no choice but to bluster on to oblivion. The field in general is not so narrow-minded as to ignore the view of minds so eminent as the SENS Challenge panel, however. There is much work to be done to implement SENS, and the time to focus on that work is now.


Posted by: Reason at July 24th, 2006 7:28 PM
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